There was a tap on the window.
Te Arepa sat up.
It was Wiremu!
He had forgotten. After thinking about nothing else for days, he had forgotten.
And he had slept in, he could tell from the light.
“Wait there! I’ll be right down.”
He pulled on his shorts and checked shirt then made for the back door. The house was quiet: Ra had taken his sister Rawinia to visit his mother at the hospital. It took most of the day, this trip, especially if they went to Aunty’s to see Aroha on the way back. Te Arepa would go next time and Rawinia would get minded. That was their system. The hospital was strict: only two visitors per patient, no exceptions.
He went out the back and let Wiremu in.
“Take your shoes off, man.”
Their joke. Neither of them wore shoes.
Wiremu nodded. He was always hungry.
Te Arepa cut four big slabs off the loaf on the bench.
“Vegemite or just butter?”
“Vegemite, and thick too.”
The two boys sat in the kitchen, their mouths too stuffed to talk for the moment. Te Arepa put his line on the table. Forty feet of green fishing string wrapped round the stub of a broomstick, with a big hook and an old cog for a sinker. Wiremu reached across and felt the tip of the hook: it was sharp all right.
Te Arepa got up and walked to the fridge. He didn’t want Wiremu to see his face. After the slow study of the fridge’s contents he pulled a chunk of meat off the side of last night’s mutton roast, wrapped it in a piece of newspaper and put it in his pocket.
“Let’s go.” Te Arepa’s voice was a little higher than he expected.
When they reached the bridge over the Pokaiwhenua they climbed up onto the concrete barricade. From here they had a clear view upriver. It was grey overhead and the water looked dark and dangerous. There was a series of willow-fringed pools where the stream changed direction. Each one of these contained a taniwha. Everyone knew that. This meant that they couldn’t swim here unless the day was bright. ‘It’s just not worth the risk.’ Wiremu’s catchcry.
They eased themselves off the barrier and then stepped over the remains of the little fence that kept any wandering cattle from taking a detour. After clambering down they worked their way up the river until they were well away from the road. At each place where the water spilled over boulders they both climbed in and began turning over the larger rocks. It wasn’t long before Wiremu yelled “Bootlace!” and Te Arepa saw a thin eel about as long as his foot racing over the shallow rocks. The trick was to flick it onto the bank and hit it with rocks.
The tiny eel kept changing its mind: at first trying hide under a boulder and then heading downstream after all, with the two boys stumbling after it over the sliding rocks. When it had only a metre to go before it reached the safety of the deep pool, Wiremu managed to get a hand under its slimy body and flick it high in the air. They watched it bounce once on the bank and then fall back into the deep water.
“Good one, Wiremu, I had it man!”
“You bumped me, man. Anyway, it was mine, eh? You get your own one.”
After a while they came to the barbed wire fence where the Pakeha Goldsmith’s farm started. They weren’t allowed to go any farther. The word was he shot at people on his land. Hemi Davis said his brother had been shot at, and all he was doing was just leaning on the fence. It was some time later that Manu Wihongi told them that Hemi’s brother had been stealing a farm bike at the time. Manu knew these things: his mother answered the phones at the police station.
The water upstream was slower and deeper. The sort of place where the big ones lived. About a hundred yards in was a stand of bush where the bank reared up high and the stream snaked in a series of deep pools.
This was the place. This was where the big ones lurked. No bootlaces here. They’d all get eaten. You wouldn’t want to swim here either. Who knew what was lurking in the reeds under the banks? The big ones could live for fifty or sixty years: this was where they grew old and clever.
The boys crouched by the fence. Goldsmith’s farm house, although two-hundred metres away, was in clear view. They would be spotted as soon as they put their foot up onto the first wire. Without saying a word, Wiremu flattened out and slid underneath. Te Arepa followed. They slithered, eel-like, close to the water. It was slow. They must not raise their heads: Goldsmith would get a clear shot. They wouldn’t have a chance.
Halfway to the trees there was a place where the cattle had come down to drink. The ground was cut up and there was no way to stop the stinking mud clinging to their underbellies. In some places their fists sank deep into the hissing mud before it became solid enough to push them forward. Every now and then Wiremu rolled over to check that Te Arepa was keeping up. With about forty feet to go they were tired. Tired and foul with mud. It took all their willpower not to get up and run the remaining distance. But they didn’t. They had come too far for that.
When Wiremu finally reached the fenced-off bush he wriggled under the last wire and sat up, panting. Te Arepa lay still in the mud looking at the older boy enviously. The last ten feet yawned before him.
“Come on! Come on Reps, nearly there!”
And so he was. Moments later he was through and sitting in the dense bush, next to his friend. They both looked back at how far they had come. It was an achievement. Not everyone could have done that. This must surely be the beginning of something special.
The bush had been fenced off and left for years. It towered above them, the broad leaves only letting through chinks of light. There was no wind here, and the only sound was the distant murmur of the water and the warble and cackle of some distant tui. Neither boy spoke now, aware of something powerful here, a presence that needed to be respected. The forest floor was damp and soft under their feet. No stones: just dead leaves and rotting branches. The trees were huge and it was impossible to see any distance ahead through the tangle of creepers and spindly koromiko. Te Arepa could see the tension on Wiremu’s face: it was if he was holding his breath. They both knew they were in a danger zone.